Wednesday, June 23, 1999
The easy comparison to Charleston is Williamsburg, but they’re hardly long-separated twins. Yeah, both were once far more important than they are today. And for years both were nearly buried under commercial rot. And maybe even Rockefeller’s money, rescuing Williamsburg, made folks in South Carolina realize they needed to clean up their own wreck. But there are no reenactors tramping Charleston, pretending to live in another century. “Buses? I don’t know anything about buses. I’m Thomas Jefferson.” (In Charleston, that would get you arrested.) Admittedly, there are college kids hauling tourists-by-the-dozen in oversized surreys. But these kids wear sensible T-shirts and jeans. Their horses sport Pampers.
Though like Williamsburg, the guides seem to have studied at the Lucy Van Pelt School of Misinformation. Not only are spiels twisted Southern—“The War Between The States wasn’t really about slavery, “—sometimes they’re just flat wrong—“If the French and Indians hadn’t interfered, the South surely would have won.”
No need explaining, won what.
Still, there’s a generous sense of pride: This is our city, the place we live. And while its clear they’d just as soon certain parts of it weren’t overrun with tourists, they know how much money there is to be made. So while strangers are underfoot, at least they try and keep ’em happy.
In the Historic District, there’s also a feel of ordinary people living—well, ordinary people who own Porsches. For while contemporary cars and mailboxes line the streets, the cars are showroom slick, and the mailboxes custom cast. Financially, Old Charleston is still very much a walled city.
And a visual ghetto—the locals joke about the restricted colors. Technically, there are over a hundred-and-fifty, though actually, home-owners have to choose their favorite three. Then The Historic Foundation Committee tours and decides which scheme will suitably compliment the neighborhood. Meanwhile, every house boasts a plaque, usually brass, sometimes tastefully tarnished so as not to offend. Built in 1812, one parades. Built in 1796, another crowns, followed in smaller letters by the name of a long-dead architect. There’s often other information as well: who lived where, when, and why that needs to be memorized. Since most of the names are unrecognizable outside Charleston—and maybe only currency within the Historic District—eventually you stop trying to remember them all. The same way that, after ninth grade, you forgot the names of all the Presidents.
Some houses are open, for a sometimes not-so-modest fee (it’s unregulated). Some have even been restored—what the fees are supposedly for. “But after you’ve seen the best,” my local friend Nedra warned, “the rest are kind of shabby. And even the good ones start to look alike.”
Those darn colors.
Tom and I walked the Historic district, a seemingly sensible way to stay with the dog while avoiding college guides. Also, we needed to work off lunch, Southern hospitality still extending to big cooking. We began at the waterfront, newly created courtesy of Hurricane Hugo. The storm didn’t really wreck anything important, we were assured. But Federal money finally let the city build what it had always wanted.
“South Carolina is land-rich and cash-poor,” Nedra explained. “So not only did the loans restore the city. They also let it tear down the junkier landmark stuff.”
But don’t cry over lost architecture. “The government lets you register anything over seventy-five years old,” our motel clerk had already cautioned. “Giving Charleston more historical buildings than anywhere in the country. And once they’re listed, you can’t even paint ’em without a battle.”
Why did our clerk know so much about Southern history, when most people working motel desks can barely spell their names? It turned out that on weekends he was also a tourist guide.
“Hell,” he laughed. “Everyone here works as a guide.”
It seemed true: two other men in the lobby that evening—very different guys, one arriving on a Harley—also volunteered interesting history. I doubt people in other cities know as much about where they live, certainly not in L.A.
From the waterfront, you gaze out on several islands, one of which is Fort Sumter. Yep, that Fort Sumter. You can also see the battleship, Yorktown, but that was another war. The best houses in Charleston are just down the block from the water, at the battery, which also hosts a slew of cement-crammed cannons.
“That’s the way the Federal government returned them,” touted a passing surrey-guide. “And not till fifty years after the War.” He made it sound like the folks in Washington really feared the South might re-secede. Though I’m sure even he knew that by 1915 the Army had come up with something more menacing than cannon balls.
Still, like the artillery, the best houses also face the water, and they’re as much like stage scenery. As with self-important office buildings that flaunt granite fronts, but hide red brick along the alleys, Charleston’s houses are only finished toward the river. A neighbor up the street may share your magnificent view, but also face your ugly, stuccoed butt.
We stopped at the Market, currently being restored to food court status. Nedra had told us about the locally-famous sweetgrass baskets, supposedly terrific as gifts, and Tom wanted to check them out. And maybe they’re fine if you’re really generous to friends. The smallest basket, able to hold, perhaps, a couple of beans, started at twenty bucks. Larger ones, suitable for freshly-cut orchids culled from your private greenhouse, topped two-fifty. “And they’re making so many now,” Nedra advised, “that they’ve run out of native grass and have to import it.” Still, at least most sellers spent their spare time weaving new baskets. Keeping themselves calm while tourists argued over prices.
Charleston is finally famous for giving the world the Charleston, first popularized by the Jenkins Orphanage band, which I doubt ever saw much of the royalties. But my favorite item about the city is that it was originally colonized under the direction of Lord Ashley Cooper. Who named its two flanking rivers, the Ashley, and the Cooper.